We live in a world that has a tendency to separate, stereotype, and count people out. But we serve the One & Only Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, who loves everyone and says all things are possible with Him!
Raymond Bennett was born on November 10, 1968, in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a small suburb of Detroit. He was the eldest son of Zimmie Mae (Bennett) Sharpe and Earnest Cooper, Jr., both of whom preceded him in death. The Lord blessed Ray and his younger sister, Rosemary, with the opportunity to lead their parents to faith in Jesus Christ before their passing. For this we are forever grateful!
Ray grew up in southwest Detroit with his siblings – Patricia, Rosemary, Alfonzo, and Lorenzo. He attended Detroit Public Schools and graduated from Southwestern High School where he was voted Prom King. As a young boy, he had a voracious appetite and boundless enthusiasm for learning. Ray was adept at mathematics; he was technologically savvy; and he was an avid reader — all skills he carried into adulthood.
Ray was also a sports enthusiast and talented athlete. He was a member of his high school’s cross-country, tennis and golf teams. He particularly enjoyed playing basketball with his brothers. Together, they dominated the neighborhood courts and were a force to be reckoned with.
He was well-known for the fiercely competitive and fun spirit he brought to every game he played – from basketball, tennis and golf to his favorite family card games (Spades and Uno) to Horseshoes, Ping Pong, Taboo, Pictionary and the eye-winking game, Killer. He found so much joy and exhilaration in spending time with family & friends.
Ray may have been highly competitive, tirelessly driven, unquenchably curious and tenacious, but – above all – he was humble, wise, introspective and immeasurably kind. A prime example was when he tried out for his high school basketball team. For years, he practiced and honed his skills on neighborhood courts; but when he didn’t make the cut, he was devastated. He was depressed for two weeks. This was the first time in his life he wanted to do something so badly but couldn’t. Then, Ray had an epiphany. Instead of giving up on the sport he loved, he asked himself, “How can I turn failure into success?” So, he approached Head Coach Perry Watson and asked if he could be the team’s Ball Boy. At that moment, Ray became a servant-leader. After observing Ray’s intellectual astuteness, admiring his humble attitude, and seeing his tremendous potential, Coach Watson took him under his wing and mentored him as though Ray were his own son.
Before Ray graduated high school in 1986, Coach Watson introduced him to Dean Don Williams from Grand Valley State University (GVSU). As the newly appointed Dean of Minority Affairs, Dean Williams recruited Ray as the first African American student to participate in the University’s inaugural Minority Business Education Center (MBEC) program, designed to mentor and prepare African American students for life in the business world. The program taught students to work together and utilize the collective magnitude of each other’s knowledge. They learned that, individually, they were limited in what they could achieve but, as a group, they could move mountains. Throughout his time in MBEC, Ray received several scholarships, helped to recruit new students, and excelled both in the program and as a GVSU student. In Dean Williams’ own words, “Ray just soared. Everybody who was around him seemed to really be magnified by his personality and his knowledge. He worked hard, studied hard and really came out ahead. He led the charge for the advancement of the MBEC program and didn’t look back. He only looked forward to accomplishing his dreams.”
In his sophomore year of college, Ray tried out for GVSU’s men’s basketball team and made the cut! In his first season, they traveled to Europe for a tournament. This was Ray’s first overseas trip and the first of many more to come. Ray earned his bachelor’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Management Information Systems from GVSU. But he never forgot where he came from. Two decades later, he made the initial endowment contribution to GVSU’s Don Williams Sr. Dean Emeritus Multicultural Business Education Scholarship Endowment fund to recognize and assist African American and Hispanic business majors with their educational costs.
In 1990, Ray began his nearly 11-year career at Pepsi Bottling Group as a Store Merchandiser, ultimately rising to become Plant Manager. Then, in 2001, Ray relocated with his family from Detroit to Maryland to begin the next phase of his career at Marriott International.
With the grace, wisdom and strength given to him from God above, Ray continued to soar. Ray started his career at Marriott in the food distribution business as Vice President of Operations, Eastern Region. After transitioning to the hotel side of the company, he continued to grow in leadership roles, such as Resident Manager, Crystal Gateway Marriott and General Manager, Residence Inn Pentagon City. His on-property experience catapulted Ray into senior roles in Real Estate Development, Operations, and Lodging Services. Starting in 2015, he served as Chief Global Officer, Global Operations for nearly six years. In January 2021, he was promoted to President, North America Franchising and Managed by Marriott (MxM) Select Brands. He counted it a blessing, privilege and honor to serve in the hospitality industry with his Marriott colleagues at home and around the world.
While in high school, Ray made the most important decision of his life while visiting his sister, Valerie in St. Louis. He accepted Jesus Christ into his heart as Lord and Savior. Upon returning to Detroit, he joined in fellowship with the members of International Gospel Center, under the leadership of the late Apostle Charles O. Miles and his son, Pastor Marvin N. Miles. After moving to Maryland, he and his family made Church of the Redeemer their church home, under the leadership of Senior Pastor Dale O’Shields.
A man of faith, a leader, and a caring philanthropist, Ray believed in giving back to his community. He served on the Board of Directors for the following organizations:
KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) - a nonprofit organization that provides recreational opportunities to children and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities.
College Tracks - a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing low-income, first-generation college students in Montgomery County, Maryland with financial aid, tutoring and mentoring services to help them graduate.
The Academy of Hospitality & Tourism - a program in Washington, DC Public Schools that allows students to take courses and learn about the hospitality and tourism industry. Students get to participate in work-based and experiential learning opportunities, including field trips to hotels, restaurants, post-secondary institutions, and wholesale food companies.
School of Hospitality Administration at Boston University
Equity Residential (NYSE-EQR) - one of the largest publicly traded apartment real estate investment trusts in the United States.
He was also a member of The Executive Leadership Council, a national mentoring, networking, and development organization composed of African American CEOs and Senior Executives from Fortune 500 and equivalent companies. Ray also frequently and anonymously blessed many people in various ways. He loved to mentor young people and support minorities starting out in the business world. Ray was very generous with his time and giving of himself. His colleague and friend at Marriott, Liam Brown said it best: “The best way we can honor Ray’s legacy is by holding the door open for others, just as he did.”
Ray loved spending time with his wife, children, and extended family. He loved to laugh, share brain-teasers, do magic tricks, watch movies, discuss current events and play games. His favorite pastime with his wife was playing ScrabbleGo on their cell phones, even if they were sitting in bed next to each other. Whenever his three daughters’ volleyball teams were in season, he made sure to send their schedules to his Administrative Assistants to ensure none of his meetings and business trips would interfere with their many games and tournaments. For 10 years, he sat in the front row, directly across from the coaches, at every game to cheer his daughters on. He strongly supported his son’s dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. They often went to open fields to fly drones and discussed global destinations to which Michael flew on his flight simulator app. Ray enrolled him in online mentorship programs for aspiring pilots and signed him up for a flight academy where he piloted an airplane from take-off to landing.
Though Ray worked hard and played hard, he remained humble through life’s ups and downs and often expressed immense gratitude to God for his many achievements and blessings. He made it his life’s mission to pay-it-forward by helping others achieve their goals. Ray never met a stranger, leaving an indelible impression on everyone he encountered. He openly shared his life experiences and wisdom with anyone who asked. He also generously shared the joy and love he found in knowing Christ, living out the Bible verse that stuck with him since he was a teen: Luke 12:48 (AMPC), “... For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required …”
In 2021, Ray strengthened his walk with the Lord by reading the entire Bible from cover to cover. He invited his family to join him on his journey of getting closer to God by sharing daily devotionals, the ‘Bible Project’ book and video series, and ‘The Chosen’ web series. Though flawed, as all of us are, Ray endeavored to worship, magnify and honor God in all that he did. From start to finish, God’s hand of love, grace and mercy can be seen throughout his life.
Ray leaves to cherish his memory and carry on his legacy: his loving and devoted wife of 28+ years, Vivian; his four children, Gabrielle (Chevoy) Johnson, Rachael, Michelle, and Michael; his siblings, Patricia Bennett, Rosemary (Darryl) Moore, Alfonzo (Brenda) Sharpe, Lorenzo (Sharon) Sharpe, and Rosalyn Valerie (Keith) Kisart; his sisters-by-love, Effelina (Eric) Jones and Rhonda Rideaux; his parents-in-law, James F. and Irma Crockett; his brother-in-law, Anthony Crockett; and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, friends and work colleagues.
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